Proxima Centauri’s potentially habitable planet hit by a huge flare

The closest planet to Earth outside of our solar system might not be a place you’d want to visit. 

Researchers have found that the planet — called Proxima b — was likely bathed in radiation after its host star (comparable to our sun), Proxima Centauri, emitted a huge flare in March. 

“March 24, 2017 was no ordinary day for Proxima Cen,” Meredith MacGregor, the lead author of the new study detailing the flare said in a statement.

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare.”

Proxima Centauri became more than 1,000 times brighter than usual during the flare, according to a new study published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This may not mean good things for the planet’s potential for supporting life. 

While Proxima b is thought to be in the “habitable zone” of its host star — meaning it could potentially host liquid water on its surface — the planet may be an irradiated, lifeless ball of rock due to these flares from Proxima Centauri. 

“Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water,” MacGregor said. 

Artist’s illustration of a flare.

Image: Roberto Molar Candanosa / Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA/SDO, NASA/JPL

Our sun also spits out the occasional extreme flare, but Proxima Centauri, which is located about 4 light-years from us, is likely more active than our host star. 

M-dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri are plentiful in our galaxy, but scientists think these red stars may not be awesome when it comes to hosting life. 

While the small red stars do live a long while, they may go through some wild early years marked by extreme flares that could fry any real chance for life to develop later on.

That said, some scientists also think these stars quiet down in their later years, possibly allowing life to develop on longer timescales if the world’s atmosphere and magnetic field survive through the star’s early, turbulence years. 

Still, Proxima Centauri’s system doesn’t seem to show many signs of life as we know it. 

The new study also found that the space around Proxima Centauri isn’t filled with dust, as some earlier studies suggested. Instead, it looks pretty empty and doesn’t bear much resemblance to our solar system.

“There is now no reason to think that there is a substantial amount of dust around Proxima Cen,” Alycia Weinberger, a co-author of the study, said in the statement. 

“Nor is there any information yet that indicates the star has a rich planetary system like ours.”